The following excerpt from Luther’s 1526 Trinity Sunday sermon provides the reformer’s commentary on the new birth Christians receive through water and the Holy Spirit in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism.
Thus, with this statement of the first part of the sermon, He points out the reason why man according to his nature in which he is born cannot come into God’s kingdom, and why a different, new birth is necessary, which occurs through the Holy Spirit. So in this way Christ not only rebukes human ignorance and error but also begins to teach what the new birth is and how it takes place, even though He does not yet include all the points which belong to it. Rather, He first shows only the causae efficientes, the cause and means from which this new birth comes and through which it happens. Then He will also tell how and through whom it is acquired, and how it is received. That is why we must look a little better at what the words mean: “born from water and Spirit” [John 3:5].
What does it mean to be born again?
Note, first, how He leads and directs Nicodemus to the external office in His Church, which is preaching and Baptism, because He says, “Man must be born anew from water and Spirit.” He is talking about the office which John the Baptist had begun (as the forerunner and servant of Christ), which the Pharisees and Nicodemus had certainly known and seen. He wants to point him to this, and in so doing He confirms John’s preaching and Baptism. This office should continue and be regarded as something arranged by God through which we are born anew; and no one will come to heaven who does not accept this or who despises it.
It is as if He meant to say: “If you Pharisees want to see God’s kingdom, then you must all accept just this office and Baptism which John performed. You did not want to accept nor be rebuked by him, but rather you took offense at it as against a new and absurd preaching against your holiness by the Law. All your Mosaic washings, purifications, sacrifices, worship, and holiness of your Law will neither help nor benefit you at all. Rather, you can come into God’s kingdom and be saved only through this office which is preached about Me and baptized upon Me (as John did), and in no other way.”
The Work of the Holy Spirit in Baptism
He exalts this office as the Holy Spirit’s office and work through which people are born anew. It is not simply a water baptism, but the Holy Spirit is also there. Whoever is baptized in that way is not only baptized from water but also of the Holy Spirit. It cannot be said that the Spirit is there in all other water baths or baptisms, such as the Jewish baths and washings with all their ceremonies; otherwise a new baptism would have been unnecessary. It could not be said that there must be a different way—regardless of Moses’ Law and worship—through which a person can be born anew from the Spirit, obviously because the Spirit was not yet given nor worked in any of them.
Thus He shows that there is no other work or means through which man is born anew and comes into God’s kingdom than this, which is the preaching office and Baptism and the Holy Spirit bound to them, who works through this office on man’s heart. He is not talking about the Spirit who is hidden and cannot be known—as He is for Himself personally in His divine essence alone and without means—but the Spirit who reveals Himself in the external office which we hear and see, namely, in the preaching office of the Gospel and of the Sacraments. God does not want to proceed and deal with the Spirit obscurely and secretly nor do something special with each individual. If He did, who could know or be certain where or how he should seek or find the Holy Spirit? Rather, He has arranged it so that the Holy Spirit is to be available for people’s ears and eyes in Word and Sacrament, and will work through this external office, so that people will know that what happens has truly happened through the Holy Spirit.
The Power of the Word in Baptism
Therefore, these words “unless someone is born anew from water and Spirit” [John 3:5] say just as much as if He said, “A person must be born anew through this preaching of the Gospel and the office of Baptism, in which the Holy Spirit works,” etc. Through the Word He enlightens the heart and shows God’s wrath against sin and, in turn, God’s grace promised for the sake of His Son, Christ, through which hearts are kindled, begin to believe, turn to God, take comfort in His grace, appeal to Him, etc. In order to arouse and strengthen faith, He also gives Baptism as a sure sign along with the Word, that He washes away and blots out our sins, constantly grants us the grace He promised in order to keep us steadfast, and gives us the Holy Spirit, etc. More will be said about this at another time.
Therefore, take note of this text in which with clear words He ascribes to Baptism (which He calls “water”) the glory and efficacy that the Spirit is present and that a person is born anew through it. With this all false teaching and error against this teaching of faith and Baptism are knocked down. First, [the false teaching and error] of the Papists and the like, who seek righteousness and salvation from their own works. It says here that man’s own merit or holiness—produced out of the old birth from blood and flesh, or out of his own choice and opinions—can and does add nothing. Rather, there must be a different birth through holy Baptism, for which the person can do nothing himself, but through the divine will and grace the Holy Spirit is given through the externally preached Word and water, which are father and mother for this new birth, and through them one becomes new, pure, and holy before God, an heir of the kingdom of heaven.
Second, the assertions of the Anabaptists and similar sects are here overthrown, who teach people to seek the Spirit apart from or without the Word and sign, through special revelation and working from heaven above without means, etc. They even despise the dear Baptism, as if it were nothing more than only useless water. So they are in the habit of slandering: “How can a handful of water help the soul?” Nevertheless, Christ clearly says that the Spirit is present with that water and states that we must be born anew from this water. He certainly said this about real, natural water, with which John the Baptist baptized and also commanded his disciples to baptize. This is why St. Paul calls Baptism “a water bath through which the Church of Christ is cleansed” [Eph. 5:26]; likewise: “a bath of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” [Titus 3:5].
Yes, Christ arranges the words here in such a way and adds first the water and then the Spirit in order to show that we are to seek the Spirit not without and apart from the external signs, but know that the Spirit wants to work in, through, and with the external signs and office. Thus both remain together, and a person is born anew from the water through the Holy Spirit, or of the Spirit with the water. Otherwise it is certainly true that if the water were alone without the Spirit, it would be and do nothing more than any other water or bath, and of course there would be no new birth from it. That is why it does not say only “born from the water” but also alongside of and with the water “from the Spirit,” so that for this birth the Spirit is the husband, and the water is the wife and mother.
From this you can further see that Baptism is not something unnecessary, as the Anabaptist sect slanders, which can easily be dispensed with and deferred or delayed until we become old, etc.; or that Baptism does not benefit young children, because (as they babble) they cannot understand it. Here is a plain statement, which concerns all in common and is a divine arrangement: that all who want to come into God’s kingdom must be born anew from water and Spirit. That is why it does not work to despise it or to delay it for a long time, for that would be wantonly despising and abandoning God’s arrangement. Obviously, there will be no Holy Spirit there.
Young Children and Baptism
So also Christ certainly does not want the young children excluded from this, but He also included them in this passage; if they are to come into God’s kingdom, then we must impart and give Baptism to them. He wants them, too, to be born anew and wants to work in them, as He elsewhere commands them to be brought to Him and says that the kingdom of heaven is for such as are brought to Him [Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16]. Now, if they are to come to Christ, we must not deprive them of the means and sign through which Christ works also in them.
However, I say this about the common arrangement and rule which ought to be observed wherever and whenever we can have Baptism. Where there is danger or a situation in which someone cannot come to [Baptism], then, as in similar cases of emergency, it must be enough to desire Baptism and to bring and offer up people to Christ based on the Word.
Amended from Luther’s Works Volume 78, pages 37–40. © 2015 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.